Author of twelve historical fiction novels Judith is celebrating her tenth year as a published author. To honour the anniversary of her first published novel, Peaceweaver has been given a wash and brush up to make it look more at home alongside her later books.
By Judith Arnopp
When AElfgar, Earl of Mercia falls foul of King Edward the Confessorm Aelfgar forms an alliance with an old enemy, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn of Wales and to cement the alliance, offers his daughter, Eadgyth as Gruffydd’s wife.
Gruffydd is old enough to be Eadgyth’s grandfather, and the union is not a happy one. Eadgyth does her best to survive a life of exile but ultimately finds herself accused of fornication, incest and treason.
Alone in a foreign land, her life is forfeit until Gruffydd is killed during a surprise night attack by Earl Harold of Wessex, and Eadgyth is taken as his prisoner to the court of Edward the Confessor.
At the Saxon court she infiltrates the sticky intrigues of the Godwin family, and on the eve of his accession to the English throne, agrees to marry Harold Godwinson.
As William the Bastard assembles his fleet in the south, and Harald Hardrada prepares to invade from the North, their future is threatened, and the portentous date of October 14th, 1066 looms.
Eadgyth’s tale of betrayal, passion and war highlights the plight of women in Anglo Saxon Britain.
We watched him ride past today, the one they are calling The Conqueror. Eadgytha and I saw him ride through the city gate and, although he is just a man, I buried the faces of my young sons in my skirts to shield them from the sight. They did not see the sneer of the squint-eyed king as he clattered by, or the gaudy splash of colour cast by the splendour of his retinue against the sombre street.
Around us, the crowd stood silent in the rain, and although I am tall and feared that the hatred in my heart would knock him from his mount, the counterfeit king did not notice me.
The people dispersed slowly, muttering against the ravages of the Norman dog who, having laid waste to the south and north of England, now turns his attention to Chester, our place of refuge and the last Saxon stronghold. Many have been slaughtered and their homes destroyed, leaving ruins to smoke beneath the sulky sky and the destitute to huddle in the darker places of the street.
A ragged old fellow snorted and spat greenly into the mud where the Norman king’s horse had trod. “God’s curse be on ye, gutter shite,” he cried in cracked tones, shaking his feeble fist in the air. I patted his arm in mute sympathy before we turned away.
“Why are you trembling, Mother?” asked Harold as we hurried back to our lodging, heads bent against the driving rain.
“Your mother is chilled, that is all,” replied Eadgytha, hastily taking the child’s hand. “We have stood too long in the rain. Come, hurry along, Harold; make haste, Wulf.”
We climbed the steep castle hill, inhaling the acrid stench of fires newly quenched by sheeting rain.
Too close to the stronghold for comfort now it is in Norman hands, we need to move on. Chester is no longer a safe refuge for any Saxon, let alone women such as we.
Indoors, the fire has sunk low. Eadgytha stoops to feed it a few meagre sticks before warming a little goat’s milk for a nourishing drink. Then we sit knee to knee before the hearth, while the twins play with swords fashioned from two sticks. Anwen bursts through the door, accompanied by a flurry of wind and leaves.
“My, it’s cold out there. I’ve managed to find a few things for supper, nothing to drool over but better than nothing. I’ll get it going right away so we can dine and get ourselves early to our beds.”
She throws vegetables into a pot while Eadgytha and I, chilled more by circumstance than weather, begin to discuss our options. The invasion has been thorough and there are few places of refuge left in England. No Saxons are content beneath the Norman rule yet; most, eager to save their necks, collaborate, quelling their hatred to meekly bear the yoke.
A few have rebelled. Some rally to the call of Hereward, known as the Wake, in his hiding place in the Fens. Perhaps we should join them there but it is a far off place, haunted by the dispossessed, and the marshes are fraught with mischievous sprites; besides, there is no man now to protect or guide us. So we cower here in this dark place, two women alone. Our household is scattered and we are forced to look to ourselves.
It is not easy for women such as we to live in obscurity, raising our children and scratching a living from the dirt. Eadgytha’s sons are far away and her daughters are … well, we know not where. My family is scattered also; my older sons are across the dyke with their Welsh kin, and my brothers are lost.
We make an odd pairing, Eadgytha and I, but we have only each other now. Of all the women in the land, we are the two whom William of Normandy most desires to lay hands upon. If we are captured, he will put out our eyes and cut off our noses. If we are lucky, we may be shut away in a religious house, but my infant sons will be shown no mercy. He will kill them straight.
There is no one in this stricken land who flees King William more diligently than we, for Eadgytha, long time known as the Gentle Swan, was twenty years King Harold’s mistress, and I, also named Eadgyth, was Harold’s queen. I am mother to the Ætheling, Harold Haroldsson, who tumbles in play with his brother upon the dusty floor.
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Judith Arnopp is the author of ten historical novels including The Winchester Goose, The Beaufort Chronicle (three book series), The Kiss of the Concubine and A Song of Sixpence. You can find her on Facebook • Twitter • Website • Blog.